Motorhoming on a Budget by John Gratton

Refurbished and ready to tow a GoldWing

Editor’s Introduction: John Gratton is a long time member of GWOCGB and the Regional Rep for Staffordshire Wings.  He wanted to continue taking his GoldWing to camping events without having to pitch and sleep in a tent and this is the story of his search for an affordable alternative.

It was last August I decided that my old bones had started to tell me that my days of camping under canvas were drawing to a close. I considered buying a caravan, a lot more ‘bang for the buck’ basically and I could take my little dog Pip, with me, the downside of that option being that I could not take my beloved Wing with me so that option was quickly dismissed.

The only other option was purchasing a motorhome, so I started my research (well I logged on to Ebay) to look  for a motorhome within my budget of  about £10k.  I didn‘t know how I would take to motorhoming so I wanted something I could re-sell without taking a big financial hit if I wasn‘t fond of it. I needn’t have worried, I took to it like a duck to water.

I quickly realised I wasn’t going to get a lot for my kind of money.  Most of those in my price range were in need of some serious bodywork – something which was going to cost serious money to fix.

In this budget range you will almost certainly be looking at a motorhome based on a Fiat Ducato, Talbot Express or Citroen C25.  All are basically the same vehicle, sharing many common components; these are all tough little vehicles being intended for the abuse they receive by the ‘white van man’ worldwide. You might find one based on a Volkswagen Transporter I dismissed this as having operated one in my company,  I had found the price of spares very expensive, however they are very, very reliable vehicles.

You pays your money etc.  There is an expansive range out there so I decided to make a list of my requirements and preferences, viz:

  1. Ducato/Express/C25 based
  2. Minimum 4 berth
  3. Bed over cab (you will be no doubt be familiar with the shape having an extended body above the cab)
  4. In good bodywork condition with no rot
  5. In good mechanical order
  6. Dry (i.e. not damp) in the habitation area
  7. Preferably low mileage
  8. Under £10k

Inspect carefully before you buy

If you don’t know much about vehicle mechanics and/or motorhomes take someone with you who does, generally these are the things I always do:

  1. Take overalls and a torch so you can scrawl around underneath and have a good look for rot / damage, also take a magnet to check for filler, look for signs of recent ‘overspray’ and or new/recent paint.
  2. Take a fully charged 12v battery with you, so you can check lights, fridges etc. work
  3. Take a bottle of gas and regulator to check if the fridge, heater and water boiler work
  4. When contacting the vendor, tell him you’re ringing about the motorhome, don’t be specific, if they ask which one they’re probably dealers, not a bad thing in it’s self just so long as you know
  5. Ask them not to start the engine before you get there, and when you do arrive lift the bonnet and check the block is cold, some worn engines only smoke when they’re cold.
  6. Have a test drive (of a reasonable distance 5/10 miles, put a gallon of fuel in if necessary) to make sure the gearbox, engine, cooling system, power steering (if fitted) all works OK. When you get back to the vendors park it on a clean area and check under later for oil leaks
  7. Have a good look at the tyres, they aren’t cheap
  8. When you get in the habitation area open all the drawers / cupboards and have a good sniff for the tell-tale smell of damp/mould, be suspicious if it has a lot of air fresheners or it’s just been ‘Fabreezed’
  9. Be prepared to spend some time when inspecting, it’s a good investment.
  10. Petrol or Diesel ? Mines petrol and does very acceptable mpg, diesels of this era were not particularly efficient, according to my Ducato handbook it says 30mpg for petrol and 32mpg for diesel, you’ll have to make your own mind up on this.

By no means an extensive list, you’ll probably think of more things to check.

There are plenty of places to search for a motor home of this type, the internet being invaluable, I recommend you trawl through ebay, there is (usually) a huge selection from complete knackers to £90k plus luxury motor homes on ebay.  Also look on a website/forum called Motorhome Facts, it almost certain that any questions you may have can be answered there.

I looked at a number of suitable vehicles but dismissed them as they had issues, mainly rot.  Eventually I spotted one on Ebay which seemed to conform to my requirements and was described as in ‘amazing’ condition (for the year, manufactured in 1989), it was only 30 miles from home so I telephoned and made an appointment to view the following day at Walsall.  On arrival I was surprised that it was as described: the bodywork in absolutely fine condition.   (Have a good look look underneath as well when you are inspecting, my chassis was like new.)

The owner (it’s first and only) had kept meticulous records every MOT from the first to present, all the handbooks, all the servicing and any repairs receipts (down to receipts from Halfords for spare bulbs !!!!), from the MOT’s I could see that the mileage of 27k miles was correct, this is it I thought, just the job, ticks all the boxes, the vendor was honest and told me that the fridge didn’t work on gas, there was a fault with the water heater and a minor problem with the taps, all I thought easily fixable.  After some negotiations on price (I may be English, but I don’t have an overdeveloped ‘cringe’ gland as the advert says) I was the proud owner of a 1989 Swift Capri (Ducato based) motor home.

I left a deposit and arranged to collect it a few days later. I arranged to have it inspected and serviced by a mechanic mate as soon as I got it home, duly checked and serviced everything was found to be OK apart from the exhaust which had been patched up with exhaust bandage.

The Restoration – Interior & Habitation area

I use the term restoration very loosely it wasn’t my intention to turn it into a ‘concours’ vehicle rather to tidy it up to an acceptable and good level, first an exhaust wont cost much I thought, rang the local exhaust place and was told it was about £250, ashen faced I put the phone down, and picked the keyboard up, on the internet and ten minutes later had a complete brand new exhaust with a five year warranty on the way for the princely sum of about £70 including the carriage, it arrived the next day and was fitted by lunch time.

Spent a few hours with a bucket and sponge inside the vehicle and cleaned everything, curtains down and in the washer, got the Bissell carpet cleaner out, which has an upholstery cleaning attachment and cleaned all the upholstery, came up like new, didn’t bother with the carpet which I had decided to renew anyway with vinyl cushion floor, re-hung the curtains and notice the dry-clean only label, ah well too late now, but they were fine anyway.

Next I thought check the 240v mains electrics, there had been a few mods over the years, some I wasn’t to happy with so I replaced all the 240 volt mains wiring and installed a new consumer unit with an RCD (Residual Current Device a safety feature which must be fitted) and new MCB’s, that done an additional 13A socket was fitted where the TV was going to be fitted, also fitted a couple of 12v cigarette lighter type sockets each side of the upper lockers one external and one internal in both sides for the TV and satellite system (Aldi £60 on offer, works perfectly more of this later). The internal 12v sockets allow the charging of mobile phones, camera and video batteries out of the way of prying eyes.  A further 12v socket was fitted in the dash for DAB radio and/or Sat Nav.

The taps on my motorhome were not working properly, on a unit of this age you’ll probably find the ‘Comet’ taps which have a micro switch fitted, the first few degrees of rotation of the tap knob engages the micro switch and turns on the pump, one of mine had failed on the kitchen sink , I found it more convenient to fit a complete tap assembly, at the same time the steel enamelled sink was found to be rotted around the waste outlet (it’s very common so check it when you are inspecting).

The sink was replaced with a stainless steel one  which fitted perfectly. I now had all the taps working fine except for one of the shower taps, the fault was traced to a tiny piece of plastic being broke on the inside of the knob, soon cured by replacing with one off the old redundant kitchen tap, I didn’t have a great deal of confidence in the current handling properties of these micro switches so I made up a relay unit which was fitted in adjacent to the water heater now the micro switches just operate the relay coil literally milliamps so the micro switches should last forever.

The fridge fault turned out to be an incorrect knob having been fitted and holding the safety gas valve shut, easily fixed, I removed the water heater (a Cascade Mk2), it looked in pretty good order but as the season was fast approaching I decided to ’bite the bullet’ and have it professionally overhauled, a good decision it turned out, took it to Arc Systems in Nottingham who specialise in these devices, all repaired serviced and put back in for the princely sum of £115, and worth every penny, Gary of Arc Systems knows these units inside out and is fully equipped to overhaul them as I watched him I realised you need specialist jigs and equipment, not a DIY job by any means.

Checked the onboard battery charger unit and found it had no output (it charges the leisure batteries and provides 12vdc if you’re on a mains hook up), so that was whipped out and a replacement was planned until I found out the price of a new unit, bugger that I thought and stripped the casing off and spent a couple of evenings drawing out the charger circuit, incidentally the charger has a ‘soft-start’ feature built in, I assume to protect the alternator diodes (tip, you should never charge a vehicle battery, with a mains charger, when the battery is still connected to the vehicle, it can and often does damage the diodes, alternators generate AC the diodes rectify this to DC – simples !!), interestingly the output of the onboard charger is only about 13.8 vdc, the vehicles alternator regulates at 14.4 vdc (approx), simply this means the on board charger will never charge the batteries to full capacity, probably another diode saving feature, checking through the circuit board a few electronic components were found to be defunct, parts ordered from Farnell Electronic Components for the princely sum of about £2.50, soldered in tested, refitted (this time in the correct orientation so the controls could be accessed), another job done. Because where the charger is fitted in the lower half of the wardrobe I had to rig up a work light so when I’d finished the charger I added a 12v fluorescent  light in the wardrobe, this has been invaluable since proving illumination in quite a dark area. I also fitted a couple of spot fittings under the top lockers for reading etc.

Finally in the interior I removed all the cupboard doors and drawer fronts and re-varnished them, they look like brand spanking new now.

Exterior

That’s just about it for the interior, now for the exterior, the transfers had gone a bit tatty and were letting the van down on appearance so I decided to remove them, I started on one of the hottest days of the year, hairdryer and fingernails ready I started, 14 hours later I’d got them off, not an easy job but well worth it the motorhome started to shed it’s years (in appearance). The front bumper and grille/headlight surrounds looked a bit shabby so removed them and resprayed them to match the bodywork( I‘ve got my own spray gun and compressor). Paintwork I thought could do with a polish, now I’m a bit of a ’tool junkie’ so I brought a polishing machine from Machine Mart, the sort as used in professional body shops and set to with the job 4 hours later all the body work done, a coat of Mer and boy was it shining, incidentally  a body shop quoted me £150 to do it the machine cost about £70 and I’ve got it for future use, still toying with the idea of replacing the graphics as I’ve a friend with a sign writing business who owes me a favour and would make and fit for free, and you can’t get much cheaper than that. (My mother was a Yorkshire woman and it shows up in me from time to time.)

Vehicle Electrics

I had a few problems with intermittent faults on the vehicle electrics, all of a sudden the vehicle refused to start, and the indicators stopped working, finally traced it to the absolutely rubbish connectors used to provide the earths to various components, in this case the electronic ignition module and indicator system, just age and corrosion really, there’s one on each side of the inner wings, these were removed and replaced with more substantially units from the local auto electrical factors, they have proper plated screw fittings these were installed and coated with silicon grease (from Maplins) and new terminals fitted to all the earth cables (and silicon greased) all fitted and tightened up and all the intermittent faults disappeared and the vehicle now started first time, even if you haven’t got these problems I advise you to change to these terminal blocks and use the silicon grease it’s brilliant at stopping electrical corrosion, most vehicle electrical problems are caused by poor earths so it’s well worth doing. New horns were fitted, as well as ‘Audi’ style daytime running lights at the front, had them hanging round the garage brought for the Wing but couldn’t find any where suitable to put them on it.

Extra Space

If you want extra space you will need an awning if the motorhome hasn’t got an awning rail then you will have to fit one, really easy took about an hour, got my awning off ebay £75 technically second hand when it arrived it was still sealed in it’s original plastic bag completely unused, I also purchased a sun canopy which also fits in the awning rail (http://www.riverswayleisure.co.uk/acatalog/info_190020.html) not tried that yet but it looks to be just the job, would have liked one of the Fiamma roll out ones but they’re hundreds of pounds, this one should do the same job for £40

Towbar

If the vehicle doesn’t have a towbar fitted, then obviously you are going to have to get one if you are intending to take the Wing with you. Towbar can be very expensive, one quote I had was over £500, finally tracked one down from a company called Watling Towbars, in St Albans, very helpful people who told me that although they didn’t do one specifically’ for my motorhome they did make one which would fit with some minor mods, as I have my own welders, grinders etc. it wasn’t a problem ordered it complete with electrics, etc for about £150, and fitted it myself in about 3 hours, job done.

The last jobs I did was to have new vinyl cushion floor fitted as I am completely hopeless at carpet fitting I had it done by a mate who does it for a living, cost a few pints and looks great, easy to clean and durable.

TV & Satellite systems

I looked at 12vdc/240vac TV’s from the camping & caravanning shops, they are expensive, too expensive for my tastes, the object after all was to do this on a budget, finally sourced one at Tesco (although the newer models are different and not suitable) which was a 15.6” flat panel with built in DVD and Freeview for about £116, importantly the TV has an external power supply which converts 240vac to 12vdc, the 12vdc plugs in the side of the TV, hence it is usable on the vehicle electrics, you might want to run it through a regulator (about £20, that’s roughly half price of most sites)  to prevent damage through transient voltage spikes available here.

The TV was mounted on a ‘swing & tilt’ bracket from Asda (about £15.00) and a quick release bracket was fitted which allows fitting and removal in seconds (about £12.00) I thoroughly recommend this type, available from here.   As mentioned before a 12vdc/ 240vac satellite system was purchased from Aldi and is found to be perfect, mounted mine on a Konig tripod from Amazon.

I had to turn an adaptor from a piece of billet aluminium which was araldite into the tripods top section works perfectly firm, strong and secure. I added a dual satellite / aerial external socket so that I didn’t need to run co-axials through the window or doors widely available and have both a co-ax and f-plug connectors built in.

Conclusion

What’s it like to drive? Well it’s no sports car, but it will happily cruise all day long towing the Wing at 60mph, fuel economy is very reasonable (for this type of vehicle) returning on average about 30mpg, there’s no power steering but I haven’t found that to be a problem at all, on the whole it’s a very pleasant vehicle to drive. Air conditioning, dream on !!!

So what did I get for my money?  In total it’s cost less than £7k and a considerable amount of elbow grease  and that includes everything including the TV/satellite system.  I’ve since had it independently valued at £10k for insurance purposes.

I’ve done about six trips in it to various Goldwing events and covered about 2000 trouble free miles, apart from having a puncture on the trailer, that’s nothing to do with the motorhome.  It’s warm and dry at night and cool in the heat of the day, comfortable and reliable, can’t really see me ever returning to a tent, its completely self contained with it’s own shower, WC, cooker, hob, water storage (24 gallons) on board and hot water on demand, in practical terms I wouldn’t have got anything else if I had brought one costing far, far more.

Editor’s Postscript: If you are choosing a motorhome to tow a GoldWing, the payload and towing capacity of the motorhome are very important considerations.  Motorhomes often have very limited towing capacity and some cannot take a towbar at all, so check this carefully before you buy.

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One Response

  1. pete rodgers says ........

    Hey John, nice write up and it is about time with your ‘old’ bones that you moved on. Hope to see you around at some of our events, take care mate.